My copy of Sword & Spear, 2nd edition arrived the other day. Designed for ancients and medieval wargaming, this is a system that has been on my radar for while. But somehow I never got around to getting the first edition, which was a self-produced book. Now Mark Lewis has teamed up with Great Escape Games to produce a more professional-looking set of rules that will also enjoy much wider distribution. Otherwise, very few changes have been made to the actual system.
So what do you get for your £15? Well, it’s a softcover 48 page book, printed in full color and with a crisp, clean layout. Nice photos of gorgeous miniatures, in different scales and from several manufacturers, abound. Overall, the production value is great and the whole thing looks very nice.
The book has 17 sections, covering everything from basic concepts and table setup to combat mechanisms, special features and additional rules (including rules for multiplayer games).
There are also four appendices with some sample army lists, scenarios and an FAQ, plus an index. Everything is well presented and the writing is concise, with plenty of diagrams and graphical examples of gameplay. I noticed a few typos and such lingering about, but nothing that really stands out or gets in the way of reading.
What makes these rules different, then, from other ancients rules? Since I haven’t actually played Sword & Spear yet I won’t go into any great detail here, but just give a quick overview of its core mechanics and a few thoughts I have after reading the rules. Hopefully I’ll be able to write a more detailed review once I’ve played a few games.
Perhaps the most striking feature is the unit activation system. Ordinary six-sided dice are used to order your units about, but in a slightly different way compared to most other games.
Each player has a number of dice equal to the number of units in his army, and preferably of a color or shape that is easily distinguishable from the other player’s dice. At the start of the turn, both players’ dice are placed in a bag.
Each turn is divided into action phases. In each phase, seven dice are drawn at random from the bag and distributed to their respective owner. This means that you might end up with only one or two dice during one phase, and with five or six dice during the next – but also that the more dice you spend early in the turn, the less options remain during the later phases. In other words, unit activation is very much a matter of resource management, something which becomes even more apparent as the turn progresses.
Starting with the active player (the player with the most number of dice during the current phase), the dice are now rolled and then allocated to units. And this is where it gets really tricky: any given unit can only be activated by a die that is equal to or higher than its discipline value. Some actions, like charging, maneuvering and rallying, need a higher value, while an equal value is enough for basic stuff like simple advances.
Consequently, you’ll need to be really careful with which units you chose to activate, when you do it and how; making the wrong move at the wrong time, or neglecting to perform a vital maneuvre, might cost you dearly.
This rather unpredictable and on-your-toes system ties in with another aspect of Sword & Spear: it is a deadly game. Combat is fast, straightforward and brutal. Each unit has a strength value (usually 3 or 4), which represents both its prowess in combat and its ability to take damage. Once the unit receives a number of hits equal to its strength, it routs.
While this might seem a bit unforgiving – there are no morale saves, no fleeing, no chance of rallying once you’ve broken from combat – it does conform with the general design philosophy behind the game. It is the author’s express intention that Sword & Spear should be an “exciting, interesting and challenging experience” that “plays relatively quickly for the size of battle being depicted”.
So while the brutality of combat might be a hard sell if you come from the “war of attrition” school of ancients gaming, others will probably find that it both speeds up gameplay considerably and makes you think twice about which units you throw into melee.
So what do I think about this ruleset? Well, to be begin with, it has some very interesing features. The unit activation system is elegant and intuitive, yet complex and probably very hard to master. The turn sequence is interactive and encourages a sort of unpredictable ebb-and-flow gameplay, far from the tired old IGOUGO way of doing things. Combat is fast and fluid, making for more tactical thinking and resource management, and less dice grinding.
There are also innovative rules for things like baggage camps (works like non-combat units that provide more options for dice allocation) and strategems (basically special rules for deployment, that give flavour to different army types).
The unit profile system is simple and flexible and designing units on your own should be pretty easy, but if you prefer to just jump right in, Mark Lewis has written a plethora of army lists, some of which are included in the book. The rest, covering most unit types from Biblical times to the War of the Roses, are all available at the Polkovnik Productions website, for free. A great resource and a very nice move by the author.
If you’ve come this far in this rather lengthy opinion piece, you’ve probably gathered that my first impressions of Sword & Spear are very positive; it’s one of several new systems – including To the Strongest and War and Empire – that really seem to aim to take ancients gaming in a more modern direction (rules wise, that is).
So I can’t wait to get this game on the table and try it out. And as soon as that happens I’ll write a more detailed review, so stay tuned!